Friday, January 9, 2009

There's No Audience!

Part 1 of 6 in the Research Roadmap for Public Communication of Science & Technology Series

The first of Borchelt's finding from the Roadmap, is that there is no general audience for science communication. To explain why this is an important, we first need to explore the concept of an "audience" for communication.

There is a strategy to communication of any kind. It's simple and employed by just about everyone, everyday.

Take this simple piece of communication heard in kitchens/labs across America:
Could you please do the dishes?
What do we know from this sentence?
  1. The dishes are not done.
  2. The dishes need to be done, and
  3. preferably not by the person making the statement.
Pretty successful communication, but it isn't great because fact #3 is a little vague. In a crowded kitchen, many people could hear the request and an hour later, there might still be a pile of dishes to be done. For better results, the phrase can be clarified.
Could you please do the dishes, sugar-dumpling?
Hey you, could you please do the dishes?
The difference between these statements and the previous is simply that an audience has been clearly identified. Now assume that "sugar-dumpling" and "you" are the same person. Which of the questions is more likely to get the dishes done?

Identifying an audience and tailoring your message to that audience is critical to successful communication. It seems like a no-brainer, but surprisingly often, who a message is intended for is considered secondary to the message. Communicators forget that the purpose of communication is to get their message to someone else. Interestingly, it isn't always their fault.

In the case of science, there is no general audience. Politicians talk to their constituents. Doctors talk to their patients. Talk show hosts talk to their viewers (who are measured by Nielsen and other indicators). But who is the audience for general scientific knowledge? How do you segment the public to relay a message that is "important to everyone", and yet probably not on the forefront of any of their minds?

Without a clear audience for their messages, science communicators can have a hard time tailoring their messages. So to go back to our earlier example, we've got a lot of dishes piling up and people begging for them to get done, but no one knows they're being asked to do them.

I'm not saying some of it isn't selective hearing loss (as my mother likes to call it), but that's a topic for another day. Today, we're stuck with really cool and exciting information, we know we need to tailor the message to a specific group of people so they'll get the news, but we have no idea who those people are and no clue how best to reach them.

There's no general audience for our science communication. So what is a science communicator to do?

Let's hear your ideas in the comments section and we'll give you the New Voices best practices suggestion in the next installment.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I would think that you could write to "everybody interested in my subject" with a view toward keeping vocab and technical terms to a minimum.

    I think it's a bit of a misstatement to say that there's no general science audience, though. Many Americans are curious about and interested in lots of things that they do not know much about. You simply put your message in the context of what you're trying to accomplish (education, persuasion).

    Your audience is everyone whose attention you snag. If your writing is approachable, they'll keep reading.

  3. This is exactly what we talk about in part 2!